“Lisa’s learning about death helped Marge feel again!”

“A perfect dovetail!”

Lisa and Marge are the responsible ones in the Simpson household, so an episode about them both losing sight of their obligations makes some sense. And, as that quote from Dr. Lionel Budgie DVM (office across the street from the DMV) is a winking reference to “Lisa The Veterinarian”’s structure, the episode, too, is clever and offhand without actually being particularly funny.

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After Bart’s signature shenanigans at the local indoor waterpark (involving a rumor about those fish that swim up your urethra) has all of Springfield smashing the windows in order to rub snow on their respective junk, a raccoon wanders in, gets tasered, and is brought back to life by Lisa’s CPR skills (and a healthy, The Abyss-style smack across the face). Lisa, thrilled by both her ability to save an animal’s life and by the adulation her deed receives, is tasked with taking care of the classroom hamster, Mr. Nibbles, and volunteers at Dr. Budgie’s clinic. So far, so good—Lisa’s always a sucker for recognition (and the lack of negative recognition—her description of her classmates’ respect as “the opposite of teasing” is a very Lisa way to look at things). And Kent Brockman’s lead-in to the news story about her feat is a fine Brockman-ism snapped off by Harry Shearer: “For once, a life saved at a Springfield water park!” (Same goes for his follow-up about Lisa having performed “emergency CPR on a nuisance animal.”)

Once Lisa gets to the vet’s office, too, things skip along nicely, mostly thanks to a crisply specific voice performance by guest Michael York. Like Donald Sutherland’s legendarily fussy historical society curator, York’s performance benefits from being that of an older character actor with no obvious connection to the show—old pro York makes old bird Budgie nicely specific without being showy. He’s delighted to have company in Lisa, territorially proud of his position, and just eccentric enough to feel lived-in. Budgie’s chipper exchange when he tells Lisa to find a clean smock (“I can’t find a clean smock.” “Then your first job is to clean the smocks!”) is the stuff of comically mad scientists everywhere, and while Budgie’s not mad, he’s entertainingly odd. I loved York’s reading of Budgie’s response to Lisa wanting to take the animals’ temperatures (“Do you know how many awkward courses I had to take before I got to stick my hand up a horse?”).

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Lisa’s journey in the episode—with her becoming addicted to the thrill of saving animals (including Captain McCallister’s goldfish’s fin rot, one of Burns’ killer hounds’ parvo, and Barney’s suddenly stink-less ferret)—causes her to lose all perspective. She not only doses Martin’s petting zoo birthday goat into a kid-butting frenzy with Milhouse’s EpiPen, but, most shockingly, actually kills Mr. Nibbles with neglect. It’s got all the classic elements of a good Lisa story—so why didn’t it work on me, an easy Lisa mark if ever there was one?

Like the backup story tonight—Marge accepts Chief Wiggum’s hasty invitation to become a crime scene cleaner so she can replace the Simpsons’ deathtrap of a ceiling fan—Lisa’s arc whooshed by as if credited writer Dan Vebber were in a hurry to get to that “dovetail” joke. Or that the episode started from the joke and worked backward, shortchanging both stories. Lisa killing an animal (and Marge becoming desensitized from having to witness Springfield’s nightly, shockingly gory bloodbaths) aren’t allowed much integrity in the flow of the characters’ lives—they’re there for the jokes they provide, and the tidy wrap-up. On a show too often marked these days by narrative sloppiness, that might seem picky, but the fact remains that when Lisa (bereft over the death of Mr. Nibbles) and Marge (realizing she’s left Lisa without her support because Marge is dead inside) finally come together for a nice, cathartic hug and cry, the moment just doesn’t register with any power. Like the episode as a whole, it’s nice, and clever, and a little glib. Yeardley Smith and Julie Kavner give it their all, because they always do (even if Kavner’s signature gravel voice as Marge sounds especially worn in in the scene), and that’s nice. It’s just not memorable.

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We’ve seen Marge and Lisa have epiphanies about how their individual obsessions and blind spots can let the people they care about down, and those are some of the most affecting moments in the show’s long history—while being some of the funniest at the same time. (I did like Lisa’s power-mad rant to Bart about her animal-saving skills, which sounded a lot like Alec Baldwin’s “I am God” monologue from Malice.) It might not be fair to penalize “Lisa The Veterinarian” for not reaching those levels, but, especially in a season that’s had some of the most promising episodes of The Simpsons in years, it’s also a mark of respect. As those episodes have shown, all the elements are still in place (especially since Harry Shearer’s been lured back into the fold) for the show to reel off a quality episode at any time.

Stray observations

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  • Getting hung up on continuity in The Simpsons is a deeply dull fool’s game, but there’s some romantic whitewashing going on here. Lisa says the CPR on the raccoon is her “first real kiss” (tell that to Nelson, among others, who’s heartbroken at the news as if their kiss never happened) and Marge claims she’s only ever turned Homer down for “snuggling” three times in their married life together. Both statements are not only objectively wrong but are wrong in service of jokes that aren’t even funny. It’s not that the show has to hew to iron-clad “hope somebody got fired for that blunder” backstories, but at least don’t waste the past on lazy jokes.
  • No sign of Springfield’s regular veterinarian, which is probably just as well. Maybe he finally got back into dental school.
  • A fine line for Ralph Wiggum fans. “Your breath smells like don’t drink that!”
  • Even though they’re at a water park, Lisa’s complaint about Bart’s splashing is perfect little sister anger: “Bart got my hair wet and I wasn’t ready to get it wet!”
  • Homer, perhaps recalling an earlier lesson, asks if the water park has any slides “for the gentleman of leisurely proportions.”
  • Milhouse’s Lisa love, expressed in classic Milhouse fashion: “They chyron-ed your name, and they described you as ‘local girl’!”
  • “And so ends the moment being about me.”
  • “That would’ve been interesting but I swabbed him for Tyzzer’s and he came up clean.”
  • Lou’s still capable of being shocked on the job: “I’ve never seen an angel-dust-for-guns swap go so wrong.”
  • Homer, marveling at the water park, “The final nail in the coffin of lakes and rivers!”
  • Matt Groening continues his assault on the Discover card. In addition to the gag in the header image, there’s this exchange from Futurama: “Do you take Visa?” “Visa hasn’t existed for 500 years.” “American Express?” “600 years.” “Discover?” “Ohh, we don’t take Discover.” (While episode writer Dan Vebber wrote for Futurama, he didn’t write that episode. Dear Discover—whatever you did to Matt Groening, he’s not letting it go.)

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